How Russia reignited fears of nuclear war in Europe

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A distinctive feature of Russian military policy is an express desire to introduce nuclear weapons into an otherwise conventional war. This helps explain why President Vladimir Putin’s talk of his nuclear arsenal since launching war on Ukraine in February has been so disturbing: the use of nuclear weapons has been considered virtually unthinkable for the 77 years since that the United States has proven its destructive power. What particularly concerns Russia is its position on so-called tactical, or non-strategic, nuclear weapons.

1. What has Russia done to cause concern?

In a speech outlining Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine, Putin warned that any nation that intervened would suffer “consequences you have never experienced in your history”. This was widely seen as a nuclear strike threat. On September 21, following a Ukrainian counteroffensive aided by American intelligence and weapons donated by the West, Putin described the war as a fight to the death with the United States and its allies and vowed to ‘to use all the means at our disposal’. to protect Russia and our people. It’s not a bluff. Rhetoric aside, Russia regularly holds exercises to test its strategic weapons delivery systems, including practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and shorter-range cruise missiles; one took place a few days before the invasion. Military experts have looked at how Russia might use a tactical weapon in a conventional conflict, like the one in Ukraine.

2. What is a tactical nuclear weapon?

“Tactical” is an inaccurate term for a nuclear weapon that could be used in a theater of war. Generally speaking, this means that it has a less powerful warhead (the explosive warhead of a missile, rocket or torpedo) and is launched at a shorter distance – by mines , artillery, cruise missiles or bombs dropped by aircraft – only the “strategic”. “nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia could launch at each other using ICBMs. Arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union (and, later, between the United States and Russia) from the 1970s generally focused on reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons , not tactics.

3. How powerful can a tactical nuclear weapon be?

While today’s most powerful strategic warheads are measured in several hundred kilotons, tactical nuclear weapons can have explosive yields of less than 1 kiloton; many are in the tens of kilotons. For some perspective, the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 had explosive yields of around 15 kilotons and 20 kilotons, respectively.

4. How does a nuclear strike fit into Russian military doctrine?

Since 2000, publicly shared Russian military doctrine has authorized the use of nuclear weapons “in response to large-scale aggression using conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation“. The Russian strategy known as “escalate to defuse” envisions using a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield to change the course of a conventional conflict that Russian forces stand to lose. John Hyten, who served as America’s top military nuclear weapons official, says a more accurate translation of Russian strategy is “escalate to win.”

5. What is in the Russian arsenal?

The US Department of Defense reported in 2018 that Russia had “significant advantages” over the United States and its allies in tactical nuclear forces and improving its delivery capabilities. Researchers from the Federation of American Scientists have estimated that by the dawn of 2022, Russia has 4,477 nuclear warheads, of which 1,525 – about a third – could be considered tactical.

6. What would a tactical nuclear strike look like?

Nina Tannenwald, author of “The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945”, describes a scenario of a small nuclear weapon, one with an explosive yield of 0.3 kilotons, producing “damage way beyond that.” of a conventional explosive. It could, she wrote in Scientific American in March, “cause all the horrors of Hiroshima, albeit on a smaller scale.” It’s possible, however, that if detonated at the right altitude, a low-yield warhead could obliterate the opposing forces below without leaving behind long-term radiological damage that leaves the battlefield beyond anyone’s reach.

7. How would the world react?

Because Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – Putin demanded that it never be allowed to join – the United States and its allies are not obliged to take its defense. But the West would be under great pressure to respond to a nuclear attack, perhaps even with its own tactical weapon. The United States is thought to have around 150 B-61 gravity nuclear bombs – those dropped from aircraft, with varying yields that can be as low as 0.3 kilotons – stationed in five NATO countries: Belgium , Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. . Two other NATO members, the United Kingdom and France, are known to have their own nuclear weapons.

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